Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Shortcut to Being a Coding Professional

About 10 years ago when I was working as a coding supervisor in a hospital, I received a phone call from a woman who was asking me how she could get trained to become a DRG auditor. At that time, there weren't a lot of coding schools and the internet was just catching on, so I referred her to the local community college and their health information technology associates degree program. She went on to tell me that she had a masters degree in an unrelated field and she didn't feel an associates degree was necessary. She also didn't want to be a coder, just a DRG auditor. She had an acquaintance who became a DRG auditor without a degree in HIM, so she figured she could too. She heard there was good money in DRG auditing and she wanted to make good money. All I needed to do was tell her where to get the information.

Okay, a quick side note: DRGs are the result of the codes assigned on a single inpatient claim - adding, removing, or changing a code can potentially change the DRG. For example, I recently reviewed a record for a coder and changed just the fourth digit on one code and it changed the DRG. So wanting to know how to audit DRGs without being a coder is like wanting to perform surgery without knowing how to use a scalpel.

Anyway, at that moment, two things ran through my brain. 1) This woman wants the job I consider to be my next step in the career ladder and 2) She just insulted me by seriously underestimating what it takes to be a successful coder, let alone a successful coding auditor.

The Shortcut to Being a Coding Professional
Each week I jot down blog ideas and often the short snippets scrawled on my note pad show a common theme. This week, the theme is summed up by a quote from Randy Pausch in the Last Lecture (I'm almost finished reading!): "A lot of people want a shortcut. I find the best shortcut is the long way, which is basically two words: word hard." And last night as I watched the last night of performances on So You Think You Can Dance, I was further moved by a simple statement by judge Nigel Lythgoe: "People believe they can be a star without working hard."

Now I am not trying to discount this woman's abilities in her chosen field of study. And although I have 15 years of experience in coding, if tomorrow I decided to be a computer programmer, I wouldn't expect someone to hire me because I have 15 years of experience in an unrelated field. I would have to study and become and apprentice all over again. It's a long journey, but the shortcut really is the long way: work hard. Would there be skills I could bring from my background? Absolutely and I would advertise those skills. But if you take one thing away from this blog posting, let it be this. You could unintentionally insult your potential employer by discounting what it takes to get to their level. And insulted people don't hire the people who insult them.

Spending Time in the Trenches
I've been a consultant for over 9 years and the best compliment I receive from a client is when they tell me that they can tell I've worked in the hospital environment and understand the process and issues. It seems simple, but in health care, we do everything differently - especially the business side of health care. Hospitals and physicians have been in business for centuries treating patients. But it's only been the last few decades that it's become necessary to combine the human health care aspect with the concept of running a facility like a business. And that's due to the increase in health care costs and the attempts to try to control those costs. The result is an industry built around human care and retrofitted for finance. How many businesses do you know that operate that way?

When I took a health care finance class a few years ago I already had several years of coding experience and was well versed in how a hospital's revenue cycle works. So as our professor talked about the process, I decided to observe the other students in the class that came from other industries - in particular, an attorney. And as the professor talked about the charge master and codes coming from different departments and payer mixes, the attorney thought it was crazy and unreasonable. It was a completely foreign concept to her. And it will be a completely foreign concept to you too until you get your foot in the door and start observing.

The woman who called me about how to be a DRG auditor eventually got frustrated with me and hung up. I wasn't the first person to give her the community college answer.

Within a few years I was a DRG auditor and I have to say it was one of the hardest experiences I've ever had. We traveled in teams of auditors (safety in numbers!) with our laptops and portable printers. Each time we finished a record that had a coding or DRG change, we printed out an audit sheet and sent the record and audit sheet back to the original coder. At the end of the week, we sat down with the coders and they had the opportunity to refute our findings. It took a few exit interviews and a lot of tough skin to build my abilities as a coding auditor. The terrific thing about coders is that they will dig to find an answer until they can prove they're right. Some of the coders I audited were right. And sometimes (I like to think more often than not!) I was right. My point is, I worked hard and I have a lot of confidence now in my ability to both conduct and defend a DRG audit.

That Annoying Overqualified Coder
I'll never forget my first encounter with a coding auditor. She was very qualified. As a matter of fact, all of my coworkers thought she was overqualified. She was brought in to do an audit of our work and then do some education. We all sat around a table at our first meeting and introduced ourselves. She started. She listed off her years of experience, degrees and credentials, and a long list of states she'd visited and audited. It took her about 5 minutes. And then she turned to her left and looked at me and asked me to introduce myself. My introduction went something like this, "Uh, hi. My name is Kristi and I just graduated and will sit for my ART [now RHIT] exam in October... That's it."

I was humiliated that I didn't have the credentials this woman had. I sounded ridiculous after her 5 minute speech about her experience. Afterward, my coworkers said they found the whole thing hilarious. They were not happy about being audited and most of them thought the consultant was overbearing and way to focused on credentials. They thought my response was perfect. And they all reassured me that no one could possibly expect me to have any experience - I had just graduated!

Now I think back to that consultant. Was she overbearing? Maybe. Did she have experience? You bet. Was she good at what she did? Absolutely. She taught me 2 things: 1) even if you have an encoder, you should always have a CPT code book on your desk because, "The encoder took me there" is not a valid response to why you coded something the way you did, and 2) how to code bunionectomies. That first introduction sticks with me too because now I'm the consultant who to some may seem overqualified. But I will tell you this. It feels so good when someone asks me a question and my answer includes the phrase, "When I was... [a coder, a coding manager, etc]." And I know it gives me credence with the people I'm talking to.

The Brick Walls are There for a Reason

The Randy Pausch quotes will be with me for awhile because so often as I've read this book, I find myself pumping a fist in the air and saying, "Yeah!" I spend a lot of time on thinking and self reflection and much of what Pausch wrote is in line with my thinking. Anyway, another favorite quote is this:

"The brick walls are there for a reason. They're not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something."

Yes, it's a quote worth bolding. I have no doubts that if you really want to be a coder and have the skill and talent for it, you will be a coder. The question is, how hard are you willing to work to scale that brick wall? We all started somewhere. People have asked me how I got so far in such a short time frame (15 years). I think I like the answer that Randy Pausch gave whenever someone asked him how he got his tenure so early: "It's pretty simple. Call me any Friday night in my office at ten o'clock and I'll tell you."